By Ciara McEneany | Community News Service
Social services leaders say they’re scrambling to figure out what to do when the state’s program to help homeless people stay in hotels ends — either next month as slated or this summer if legislation is passed.
“I don’t know what we will see come March 31,” Angus Chaney, executive director of the Homelessness Prevention Center, told the House housing committee last Wednesday when asked about the looming expiration of the Transitional Housing Program.
The program — a Covid-era policy that houses individuals and families up to 18 months in hotels — helps house 1,300 families across the state but is coming to a halt March 31, when federal funds run out. Lawmakers in the House passed a bill to extend the program till June, but its adoption as law isn’t guaranteed.
The program was originally funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency but in 2022 officials transitioned to using funds through the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The state uses the money to directly pay hotels for housing those in the program.
But even though the program could last till the end of March, each hotel has its own occupancy agreement with each tenant, with different expiration dates for each, and some have already lapsed. The first hotel to end its agreements, in Stowe, had housed 17 families before kicking them out Jan. 31.
Community action groups worry the end of the hotel program will skyrocket the number of people in Vermont facing homelessness, already on the rise.
“We do not want to go back, especially in March, to having people in very high numbers back out on the street,” said Paul Dragon, executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.
The March sunset date, announced last fall, came as a shock to individuals and families involved in the program, said Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action.
“It absolutely was not expected to end in March,” said Minter. “And for many people, not only in the hotels, but who have relied on these vouchers to be able to stay in their home, the announcement was incredibly traumatizing.”
Groups such as BROC, a community action group serving Rutland and Bennington, have been doing “boots on the ground” work with these vulnerable people, including helping folks fill out work and housing applications, connecting them with food services and providing them cell phones through a federal program.
Still, those efforts can’t address the bigger issue: people not having anywhere to safely live with Vermont’s worsening housing crisis.
“You can provide assistance to get housing, but if you don’t have any housing to put them in, that’s a problem and that’s happening statewide,” said Tom Donahue, executive director of BROC. “And the second (problem) is the rising costs of rent. I think that the assistance funding and the lack of housing has created a situation where landlords are commanding much more rent at a much higher rate.”
Another issue social services groups are highlighting: Halfway houses and shelters lack resources to help people with mental health problems, substance use conditions or disabilities.
“We have shelters, we have hotels, we have places where people are temporarily housed and they need a high level of care,” Dragon said. “Our shelters are not mental health institutions or organizations. So, really, we are talking about a holistic approach. It is also coming together as a system to provide a better level of care for people in need if we really want to begin to mitigate homelessness in Vermont.”
Currently 37% of individuals in the transitional housing program have substance use conditions, and 35% have a disability, according to officials.
“We are the connective tissue of the organizations that are also serving these folks in a variety of ways,” Minter said. “And I think our goal is to become much more integrated. What’s hard is, something that ideally should be a government function is essentially doled out to different nonprofit organizations that are all doing their own things.”
Minter and Dragon agree that the state needs to have a plan in place before ending the program and hope that it will be extended until June.
“We believe that we need to extend at least until we have the next state fiscal year when we have a strategic plan in place,” Minter said. “And that really requires accepting that every individual has a right to some sort of safe home.”
The state is working on creating new housing-assistance programs, but community action groups see no final solution for the individuals and families being supported by the soon-gone housing program.
“There isn’t a complete solution right now,” Donahue said. “And until we have enough housing opportunities this is going to continue to be a problem.”
The Community News Service is part of the Reporting and Documentary Storytelling Program at the University of Vermont.